April 2, 2001 - Los Angeles Times
A Prisoner's Plea to a President
A Decade Into Her 23-Year Sentence, A First-Time Offender Pinned Her Hopes On Clinton. Hers Is A Case, Advocates Say, Of A Pardon That Should Have Been
If there hadn't been so much hope before, there would not be so much despair now. Like thousands of others seeking clemency from President Bill Clinton in the waning days of his administration, Vanessa Wade knew he was her only chance for mercy. And so she hoped.
Her petition for clemency laid bare the sordid facts of her life: her mother's suicide when Vanessa was 19 and the subsequent responsibility for her younger siblings, her rescue from poverty by her boyfriend, her involvement in his Miami cocaine operation.
In May 1990, when she was 19, Wade agreed to transport 22 grams of cocaine for her boyfriend. A maid at the hotel where Wade and a 17-year-old accomplice were staying found the drugs, and hotel officials called the police. Tried as a "lieutenant" because of her supervisorial role over the youth, she was convicted of conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute cocaine.
By last year, Wade, a first-time nonviolent offender, had served 10 years of her 23-year sentence. In her plea to the president, she did what all clemency seekers are advised to do: accept responsibility and repent. Clinton already had commuted the sentences of several low-level drug offenders and he had openly declared the unfairness of laws that meted out kingpin sentences to minor players.
"I knew some of those women he had freed and I didn't see much difference between their cases and mine," she said. While outrage has centered on whether Clinton was influenced by family members and Democratic Party donors to pardon the undeserving, for many prisoner advocates Clinton's greatest sin did not involve those who were pardoned, but those who were not.
"The day Clinton left office without pardoning so many people who really deserved it was one of the most miserable experiences of my life," said Nora Callahan, head of the November Coalition, a drug-sentencing reform group in Colville, Wash.
Wade, who is incarcerated in a Fort Worth federal prison, dared to hope after a fellow inmate told her Iowa attorney, John Ackerman, about Wade's case. Working without a fee, Ackerman asked Wade for permission to seek clemency on her behalf. "Vanessa committed a crime and she deserved to be punished, but the penalties are way beyond what they should be," he said.
No one involved with her case would help.
"I contacted the judge in the case who said he didn't want to be involved. I contacted the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, who said no one should ever be pardoned," he said.
Ackerman filed the application last October with the Justice Department's pardon attorney's office, which reviews all clemency requests.
Pardon attorney Roger Adams, however, told him the petition was arriving so late that unless the White House showed interest, Wade's petition would not be a priority. Some people with petitions filed later than Wade's, however, did receive clemency while others who had filed earlier did not.
In the last months of the Clinton administration, the White House was awash with nearly 3,000 clemency requests. Former aides recently testified in congressional hearings that Clinton, realizing he had granted fewer pardons than previous presidents, wanted to increase the number. "Roger talked to me personally and said if we get any call for these papers from the president we'll have them ready," Ackerman said. "So I wrote to the president. You get this thing back that says your letter was received."
Wade wrote to Clinton too, every day, from Dec. 1 to Jan. 15.
In theory, applications for clemency go to the pardon attorney's office, where they are rigorously reviewed by a staff attorney. Support from prosecutors or the judge involved in the case is critical for most standard applications. Since Clinton left office, however, prosecutors around the country have said they were never contacted regarding clemency for people he freed.
If viewed favorably by the pardon attorney, applications moved up to former Deputy Atty. Gen. Eric Holder's office, and then to the White House. That's the theory.
Margaret Love, the nation's pardon attorney from 1990 to 1997, in both the Bush and Clinton administrations, said the reality is far different. The current focus of political inquiry--whether strings were pulled in some special clemency cases--misses the point, she says. Pulling strings has been almost the only way for anyone to obtain clemency. While she was pardon attorney, Love said, she was discouraged from urging commutation for anyone who did not have high-powered support.
"I was operating under what was in effect a 'just say no' directive from the deputy attorney general's office," Love said. "At one point I was told explicitly that favorable recommendations in commutation cases would not be favorably received unless there had been a prior expression of interest from the White House or from a member of Congress."
Such was the case with Marc Rich, an alleged tax evader who fled the country to avoid trial, and Carlos Vignali Jr., a Los Angeles cocaine trafficker. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak lobbied Clinton, as did Rich's ex-wife, Denise Rich, who had given $1.5 million over the years to Democrats and Clinton's presidential library fund. Vignali had high-profile supporters who included a number of Los Angeles public officials and Clinton's brother-in-law, attorney Hugh Rodham, who received $200,000 for working on the case. Rodham later returned the money. Some ordinary people did get the president's attention, but not easily. Kemba Smith of Richmond, Va., 29, had received a 24-year sentence after becoming involved with her abusive boyfriend's cocaine ring. She gained her freedom after a six-year effort by her middle-class parents, who began a foundation in her name. They launched a national media campaign, lobbied Congress, won the backing of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and bankrupted themselves twice.
Wade's family has no such resources. Both parents are dead; from the age of 10, she and her two younger siblings lived with her grandmother in a small Florida town. Before her arrest, she had studied cosmetology at a community college and worked at her boyfriend's restaurant, earning $226 a week.
In prison, she has stayed out of trouble and has spent her time working toward a college degree.
On Jan. 19, a Friday and the day before Clinton left office, Wade kept vigil before the television. "I heard a girl out of Connecticut got released, and then they said there's not going to be any more people. I had to take all kind of stress medication--after 10 years of being in here and there being a strong possibility of me getting out--it was too much for me."
Saturday brought new hope. "A newscaster said the last act will be presidential pardons and that some of the people that will be released will be people you don't recognize--people know who were given excessive sentences," Wade said. "A chill went through my body, from head to toe. I got a couple of addresses of people here I wanted to keep in touch with
"And then, suddenly Bush was president. I couldn't talk, I was in shock. I had to come into the unit and lay down. I said a lot of prayers and I cried and I cried and I cried.
It had taken four years in prison for her to accept responsibility for her crime and recognize that she deserved to be punished. "Over time I came to see that I was at fault. But I'm a first-time offender and I was only 19 years old when I made a mistake. I've seen rapists and murderers get out quicker -- my brother was killed, and the guy that murdered him was out after two years."
In the months before Clinton left office, advocates seeking to overturn long sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders had campaigned heavily, some on behalf of specific individuals, others for the entire class of prisoner. Under mandatory federal sentencing guidelines enacted in the 1980s, most sentences are determined by the quantity of drugs, without regard to the defendant's record, motives or likelihood of breaking the law again. Callahan and the November Coalition were pressing Clinton to release all such offenders who had served at least five years of their sentences. "Did we ever dream that Clinton would let out people who served five years." Callahan asked. "Yes, we did. We're still drying tears here."
Families Against Mandatory Minimums, one of the groups that led the national campaign for clemency, had some success. The Washington, D.C.-based group had submitted clemency petitions to the pardon attorney's office on behalf of 12 people, and 11 received clemency. Although disappointed that more people did not receive mercy, founder Julie Stewart says the group's focus remains on sentencing reform, not individual releases. "You don't get your money's worth by spending all your waking hours getting a handful of people out of prison when five times as many are going in that same day."
"The people I'm representing, even Vanessa, are guilty," Ackerman said. "Whether they deserve to be in jail for the length of time they're given is the question." Whether Wade and others who did not receive clemency were treated unfairly, he said, is a complex question. "Suppose you have 10 people and they're all going to be executed and one gets a stay of execution," he said. "Does that really make it worse for the other nine. No."
Individual hopes have been dashed, but the sentencing reform movement continues apace. On Wednesday, Families Against Mandatory Minimums will bring 14 former prisoners who were granted clemency in December and January to Washington, D.C., for a day of lobbying Congress and celebration later that evening.
Wade, who will leave prison in eight years if she is released early for good behavior, says she is not angry, but remains bewildered. "It's just that I thought everybody's paperwork would go through the same process."
Although she did not know it at the time, Wade never had any real reason to hope. Busy arranging his deal to avoid prosecution for making false statements about his affair with Monica Lewinsky and weighing the Vignali and Rich petitions, Clinton never even saw Wade's petition.